I had little idea of what Marrakesh was like before I went there for the first time a few years ago. I had in my mind images that were already commonly known, some that were even iconic and others of certain famous people who had lived in the city. I think of the glamorous and eccentric socialite Talitha Getty, on a terrace with the distinctive cityscape rising behind her like a magical mud sculpture, and the designer Yves Saint Laurent, in his garden, in a wonderful kaftan. Mostly, those references in my mind’s eye were to characters from the 1960s who went to Morocco to live their dreams of exoticism and freedom. The city itself I could not imagine somehow.
I took the Marrakesh Express that first time, perhaps to pay homage to my retro idea of the town. The train left, late one evening, from Tangiers, a city that is both Mediterranean and North African, a mix of many cultures and people. I went to sleep, and the next morning I awoke as we were approaching our destination through a landscape filled with palm trees, sand, and mud. A complete change of scenery, of sensations, this was deep Morocco, more mysterious, rarer. And just beyond loomed the Atlas Mountains that surround Marrakesh, a dramatic range that separates the Mediterranean African coast from the Sahara Desert. The mountains offer a respite from the summer heat; in winter, the snow covered peaks produce the cold winds that sweep through the city. Later, I would travel to those mountains, too, to take in the breathtaking natural beauty, wonderful flora, and ancient ways of life that endure.
But upon arriving in Marrakesh, the Mediterranean whites and blues of Tangiers had given way to browns and ochres, and the soft, warm sea breeze to a hot, piercing desert wind. It was July. I remember leaving the train station, and somehow the city overtook me—its smells, its colors, the car horns, and the shouting vendors enchanted me at once. We drove through the newer, twentieth-century part of town and then got out of the car to be taken, on foot, to the hotel in the medina.
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PHOTOGRAPHY AND TEXT BY MIGUEL FLORES-VIANNA
This story appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of MILIEU.